A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Scribner in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.
I will freely admit that beginning to read All the Light We Cannot See made me nervous. It’s been a really long time since I last went on a first date, but that’s exactly what picking up this book felt like: all that excitement and hope, but that familiar nervousness at the back of my mind that it might not go well, and then I’d be disappointed. Reading a book is, after all, a little like a relationship, is it not?
I should not have been concerned; I’m not sure how to talk about Light without coming across as rhapsodic. Prepare yourself: I loved this book. Light is so gorgeously written as to make me want to go back to nearly every book I’ve ever rated 5 stars and demote them. I knew (or hoped, rather) that Doerr’s writing would be beautiful; he’s won highly regarded awards for his stories. Reading this is like reading a masterwork–it is art at its finest. The vocabulary, the pacing, the sense of wonder with which the whole story is infused–truly, if it’s not nominated for next year’s Pulitzer, I’ll be outraged.
The story, itself, is a marvel. Marie-Laure and her father live in Paris just before World War II breaks out. Marie-Laure’s father is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. He bears the responsibility for the keys to hundreds–maybe thousands–of locks. He makes puzzleboxes. But his real gift is fatherhood. His tenderness and care for Marie-Laure–the daughter who has gone blind at a young age, but in whom he has continued to encourage curiosity and independence–are heart-rendingly dear.
There has always been a sliver of panic in him, deeply buried, when it comes to his daughter: a fear that he is no good as a father, that he is doing everything wrong. That he never quite understood the rules. …There is pride, too, though–pride that he has done it alone. That his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful, as if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That’s how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair: as though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.
Marie-Laure & her father’s story is interwoven with that of Werner, a young orphaned German boy, and his sister, Jutta. Beginning in 1944, the story is constructed so that it is told in flashbacks, alternating between Marie-Laure’s backstory and Werner’s, with bright glimpses of the current narrative leading us slowly, carefully, toward the place where all these paths join. Werner, as an orphan in Germany at the beginning of the war, has few options. He is drawn to science and mathematics, and when he finds a discarded and broken radio and manages to repair it, he discovers there is far more to the world than he had ever imagined–whole countries he can reach, simply by placing a tuning needle in the right place and listening. And one night, he discovers something that connects him inexorably to Marie-Laure, though it will be years before he understands.
I was amazed at Doerr’s grasp of the human spirit and its complexities. He was able to make me honestly care for characters who were not “good,” who made horrible choices. I believe Doerr must have an innate ability to see the good in people. It’s a beautiful gift, and it shines through in his writing.
Doerr’s novel, though it is placed during one of the most bleak periods in the world’s history, is filled with hope. As I read, I could not help but be filled with a sense of curiosity that is innate in the prose. The book speaks, at intervals, about light, and how little of it we are able to see–how much of it is really invisible to us, though it exists. That theme runs throughout: the hope, or faith, in things we cannot see, whether they be people, radio waves, or things more esoteric, and the need to open our eyes to the truths that are around us before it is too late. The novel is dense, beautiful, thought-provoking. I am so glad to have read it.
A few curse words from one German soldier in one fleeting chunk in the middle. Otherwise clean, and extraordinarily uplifting. 5 stars. All the Light We Cannot See hits shelves today!
First Line: “At dusk they pour from the sky.”